Another winning performance without the winning result: for the second Saturday running, Eastbourne Borough had to settle for a draw at Priory Lane - Hungerford Town snatching a late point at 2-2.
An exciting game, open until the very final minutes, kept the home crowd gripped and entertained, and there was no shortage of controversy, with the Sports on the wrong end of a couple of crucial refereeing decisions.
Like Poole Town the week before, Hungerford Town arrived as a small-scale outfit punching above their weight - and on a long unbeaten run, eight games in Hungerford’s case. It was another sobering reminder that there are few, if any, easy prey to pick off in National South.
This was not quite a repeat performance of the previous weekend. Firstly, there were goals - two apiece including two screamers, and a whole clutch of near misses. And secondly, where Poole had been quick and aggressive, Hungerford had less ambition or imagination. Either way, it was the visitors who were happier than Borough with their single point.
Tommy Widdrington’s options were reduced by Stone’s suspension and Khinda-John’s tonsillitis, and he set up with the only four defenders available. At the front of the team Nathaniel Pinney combined fruitfully with Jamie Taylor - Nat notching two goals and JT producing an inspired 90 minutes of creative movement. The midfield mixed the steel of Hughes and Worrall with the creative talents of Baptista and Oxlade-Chamberlain, and the Sports opened brightly.
Josh Hare’s searching cross gave Miguel Baptista a 7th-minute chance to open the scoring, but his shot was under-powered and keeper George Legg collected easily at the foot of the post. And just two minutes later the Crusaders were ahead with a soft goal. Soares swung over a corner and Ian Herring beat his marker too easily for a header that squeezed between defender and post for 1-0.
In the rest of the first half, the Sports tallied up eight scoring chances to the visitors’ one, but Hungerford hung on. Hughes - a relentless driving force all afternoon - saw his missile of a shot beaten away by Legg after super combination play between Pinney and Taylor, and it was Hughes again whose glancing header was only just wide from a Hare free-kick.
Meanwhile the centre-back tandem of Dutton and Simpemba looked mainly comfortable, troubled less by the Town strikers than by the low winter sun that was streaming end-to-end down a shimmering 3G surface, its astonishing long shadows turning six-foot centre-halves into sixty-foot giants. What a canvas.
Josh Hare has been one of Tommy’s success stories, an unsung hero bringing bite and bravado to the full-back role, and Saturday was possibly his best game yet - including a stint at left-back in a half-time reshuffle. Just past the half-hour, Hare seared his way into the Hungerford box and was felled in a pincer movement by defenders Tyler and Day. It looked an obvious penalty, but referee David Spain declined to give it, issuing a yellow card instead for Baptista’s angry reaction.
Miguel then responded in the right manner with a fabulous swerving strike which had Legg falling one way and twisting the other, but the shot deflected off the keeper’s hip and over the crossbar. And Taylor, spotting the keeper in no man’s land, conjured a smart over-the-shoulder lob which spun just too high.
Right on half-time, Brian Dutton’s mistimed challenge on James Clark earned another yellow: a correct call this time by Mr Spain, whose rather erratic refereeing was made no easier by Hungerford’s dramatic falls and rolls - a triple salto in Clark’s case. Widdrington is a tough nut, but he and his players always play it straight, while the number of opponents willing to buy free-kicks and deceive officials seems to rise and rise.
An injured Alex Smith was replaced at half-time by Elliott Romain, whose pace and driving runs had an instant impact. When Scott Rees dragged him to the ground on 52 minutes, Mr Spain was in no doubt, and Pinney drilled home the penalty to level the scores.
Now the game was there to claim, and again Borough created the better chances. Pinney broke clear from a Hungerford corner, but with Hughes steaming through the middle to meet his cross, a breathless defender cut it out. Then Taylor, sent away on the left by Hare, drilled a lovely ball across to Ryan Worrall, whose shot was well saved.
A superb little triangle of passes between Pinney and Taylor almost played in Hughes, and Baptista combined sweetly with Oxlade-Chamberlain to carve an opening on the right, but the Town defence whacked it clear. A goal, it seemed, was getting nearer by the minute.
But the big red clock, bright now through a darkening January afternoon, was running out of those minutes when finally Nat Pinney seized on a long ball through the right channel, turned brilliantly to leave the defender on his backside, and arrowed a low shot across the keeper and into the bottom left corner.
A magnificent goal, and worthy of winning any match. But....
Could the Crusaders storm the Priory Lane citadel one more time? Tightening their chain mail, they had launched a couple of fruitless assaults until, with just three minutes left, Mr Spain made another match-changing decision. A surprise free-kick for an innocuous midfield challenge gave Hungerford the chance to launch the ball forward, Borough defended it poorly, and substitute Manny Williams burst on to the loose ball, advanced and struck an explosive shot past Holmes from just inside the box.
The Sports raced back on to the offensive, but two stoppage time headers both flew too high, and time had run out. Four stars for quality, five for entertainment and excitement, but only one point.
Borough: Holmes; Hare, Simpemba, Dutton, Smith; Oxlade-Chamberlain, Hughes, Worrall, Baptista; Pinney, Taylor. Unused subs: Street, Bosma, Tate, Ransom.
Referee: David Spain Att: 535
Borough MoM: Mark Hughes - perpetual motion at the heart of the team